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Political Sovereignty Reigns in the U.S. But Where Did It All Begin?

By BETH HARPAZ

For all of their investment in rule of law and popular consensus, the highest power in modern democracies often resides with a single ruler or body empowered to take extraordinary measures in times of emergency.

This suggests that modern political life is defined less by legal codes and constitutions than it is by exercises of sovereign power. So when did modern iterations of sovereignty emerge? A new book called Sovereignty, by Professor Feisal Mohamed (The Graduate Center), offers 17th century England as a “case study” in the origins of modern political theory.

Mohamed attributes the 17th century’s “seismic shifts in authority” to two factors: the Reformation, which shattered the Catholic Church’s hegemony; and “the transition from landholding to moveable capital,” which “destabilized any claim to political authority grounded in feudal rights” while empowering professionals, corporations, and the mercantile class. “Rather than chief landlord in the realm, the sovereign has become, to put it in modern parlance, Chief of the Chief Executive Officers,” Mohamed writes.

These changes created a “more pluralist legal and social environment,” he adds. A “single visible church” is replaced by “an invisible one that may or may not be aligned with worldly powers, religious and secular.” Instead of a “social order centered on lord and king,” a multitude of associations and bureaucracies now govern “civic, professional and commercial life.”

Sovereignty examines this transformation through the works of “politically engaged thinkers and writers” like John Milton, who can seem “proto-liberal in his energetic arguments for personal freedoms against the encroachments of church and crown,” and Thomas Hobbes, who sees the modern citizen as “celebrating, as his own, the sovereign’s ruthless acquisition of wealth and power … while being an active player in various forms of social and economic competition.”

Mohamed also attributes an existential angst to 17th-century politics that could easily describe our contemporary political moment: “the anxiety that the scales could tip at any given moment from a divided and balanced constitution to absolutism, or that reigning powers will trample upon universal principles of justice,” along with “the creeping awareness that any attempt to exert political will is futile.”

And yet, Mohamed notes, “full participation in modern political life, and modern political culture, demands precisely this self-deluding commitment, this posture of blind optimism in an unfolding tragedy perpetually on the brink of catastrophe.”

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